One of the best contestants ever to appear on Countdown, Series 48 contestant Julian Fell burst onto our screens on 16th October 2002 and instantly set the Countdown world alight with a 117-63 victory over Kevin Neate. He went on to score a century in every preliminary game (getting the conundrum on every occasion) and finished off his octochamp run with a flourish, scoring a record-breaking 138 points on his final appearance against Carl McDermott. Having racked up 924 points, he returned for the quarter-finals as (inevitably!) number one seed, where he defeated a certain Mike Brown in fine style (after a close start) before going on to score 146 against Danny Hamilton in the semis (and that was without getting the conundrum!). He beat number two seed Grace Page in the final to become series champion, before returning on 14th January 2003 for the eleventh Championship of Champions. In the C of C, Julian knocked out Terry O'Farrell in the preliminary rounds before finally meeting his match against the similarly unbeaten Graham Nash in the quarter-finals. This is Julian's story in his own words...
I started to watch Countdown around the beginning of Series 43. I hadn't seen the show before then, and though my uncle Brian had appeared on the programme in 1998, I don't think it was that which sparked off my interest. I think I just got into it by chance, and certainly I very quickly developed an addiction to the letters, numbers and conundrum. I was, and still am, into language and etymology - I probably have my bilingual family to thank for that - but in response to the often-asked question, no I have never played Scrabble in my life, nor tackled a serious crossword for that matter.
So like everyone else, I started off pretty useless at the game, and gradually improved my word power show by show, round by round. I progressed slowly through all the little milestones which are so important to a Countdown beginner; I vividly remember my childish excitement the first time I got the conundrum, and then the first time I got a nine-letter word.
My mum bought me a NODE for Christmas 2000, which helped with checking doubtful words, though it didn't stop me receiving a good few thrashings at the hands of whizz-kid Kevin McMahon the following series. Kevin was my first real Countdown hero - I absolutely idolized him. He seemed impossibly brilliant at every aspect of the game; watching at home I would regularly be losing by thirty or forty points by the end of the first half. I was hugely disappointed when he lost in the quarter-finals.
By the time 2002 came round, though, I could beat most contestants (after adjusting to the new fifteen-round format) and was starting to think seriously about applying to go on the show, though I worried about whether I should put it off till I was older. A trip to YTV's Leeds studios to see a recording on January 14 (more than a year after applying for audience tickets!) decided me, though. I really enjoyed it, having never experienced anything like that before; it was one of those rare occasions when something you have been eagerly looking forward to for a long time actually lives up to expectations. I even had my picture taken on set with Carol at the end, with Kevin Thurlow and David Franks hovering in the background. A few weeks later, I wrote off for an application form, which promptly arrived for me to complete; a few months after that, I was invited to an audition at YTV in June.
At the audition I was incredibly nervous, despite producer Damian Eadie's relaxed and friendly manner in conducting the test. There were six of us round a large table in some side room, and we were to play a mock-up of the real game - three letters games, then a numbers round, then four more letters games, then two numbers games, finishing with three conundrums, the latter not really counting towards the audition but seen as just a bit of fun. Of course, the letters and numbers are all dictated by the auditioner, so that they are the same every time (though they do bring new ones in every few months or so). It was all quite informal, Damian timing the rounds roughly using his watch and carrying only a battered paperback OCD to check dodgy words.
As Damian started rattling off the letters at breakneck pace, my hand was shaking so much I could hardly write them down on my now-famous strips of paper. I got off to a nightmare start, offering sixes and sevens to the others' eights and nines, and my heart sank; all the painstaking preparation I had done seemed to be coming to nothing. But I managed to recover - ironically with the help of some good numbers games - and get a reasonable score, and even the glasses of the old gentleman I was sitting next to falling off on to my paper in one of the rounds didn't put me off too much; that old gentleman turned out to be George Greenhough. I was, though, beaten hands-down by a guy on his second audition, Dave Blackman, who appeared on the show shortly before I did but surprisingly didn't win a game. A few days after the audition the (very brief) letter came telling me I'd passed.
Then, when we arrived back from our summer holiday, a much bigger envelope was waiting, with news of my recording date of 7th October. There followed weeks of watching every edition of Countdown religiously (even watching five in one day on one occasion to try to simulate studio conditions), spending untold amounts on new shirts, organizing practice games with my long-suffering parents, putting the finishing touches to my lists of suffixes and prefixes and useful anagrams (e.g. MOANIEST = AMNIOTES, ROADIEST = ASTEROID), and so on. Always fiercely competitive, by now I was beating myself up mentally pretty much every time the contestants or Dictionary Corner found a longer word than I did, and generally getting rather worked up about the programme, to the extent that my mum threatened not to let me come home if I lost my game (because I would be so impossible to be with).
When the big day came around, I was, much to my own surprise, totally calm. As I made the short train journey to Leeds with my mum, in good time for the 12:30 start, I was amazed but thankful at how clear my mind was, as I had expected to be a nervous wreck in the studios, especially given how I'd felt for my audition. We were the first to arrive at the main reception, quickly followed by Kevin Neate, a quietish guy from Cheadle, with his wife. We had only been waiting a few minutes when Paula, the unit assistant who looks after the contestants throughout their stay with YTV, came out to take us through to the green room, which is just along the long corridor leading from reception, on the left. The green room (painted pink) was much smaller than I had expected, with a few armchairs around a low table with a TV in the far corner and a load of cupboards and a coffee machine ranged along the back wall.
We were quickly whisked off to the changing rooms, a bit further along on the left, to have our shirts checked, and who should emerge from her own dressing room as we were walking past but the lovely Susie Dent! She even said hello to us! That alone was enough to make my day, and I resolved at that point that I was just going to enjoy myself and do my best.
Jo, the wardrobe girl, checked through my collection of shirts and vetoed a red one which was too similar to the colour of the set; I was then taken through to make-up (a bit further along the same corridor, on the right) whilst the other contestants were arriving. Sometime around then researcher Marie (whom I'd been very eager to meet, having read many references to her in the various experiences on this site) ran up to me in the corridor to go through my contestant intro, and to check I was feeling all right. She was indeed very nice, as were Paula, Pam in make-up and everyone else I met. When I got back to the green room Mac Nulty was busy telling everyone how he had got "bladdered" in the bar at the end of his last recording day, and how producers Damian and Michael Wylie had had to put him in a taxi to take him to the Countdown hotel a few hundred yards away.
Eventually we were taken through to sit in the studio audience, Richard Whiteley himself coming over to greet the future contestants before filming started, and warm-up man Greg Scott telling everyone how "we'll be doing this live if we don't get a move on" (the shows recorded that day would, amazingly, be broadcast just a week later).
In the short turnaround between the first and second shows I was moved down to sit in the hot seat (the second seat from the left on the front row) where I had a microphone attached to my shirt and Lee, the floor manager, came over to explain what was what. I was keen to avoid Paul Daymond and his four large numbers, and again my wish was granted as Kevin just beat him to the crucial conundrum. I found the hot-seat experience was nothing like as nerve-racking as I'd read it was supposed to be, and it was quite easy to see the letters and numbers. I was glad, though, that I had the two 'warm-up' games before my show, to help me get used to the studio conditions.
There is a tea-break between the second and third shows, and I said to Kevin's wife I thought it would be a good game. The man himself was saying how much harder it was to concentrate when you had to choose the letters and numbers yourself; he seemed very glad to have got the first game over with. Soon we were left alone in the green room (the contestants for each particular recording are always taken in last), and I stayed quiet, not being able to think of much to say, and just focusing on the game to come.
We were escorted on to the famous set by Paula and seated in the comfy chairs, miked up and given a sound check (which just involved counting up to ten). We also had to be briefly filmed looking straight ahead with a big cheesy grin - these shots could then be 'dropped in' to the programme if necessary. There is a smallish square TV screen, on which the letters, numbers and conundrum appear, embedded in the desk in front of each contestant, and you get a hard-backed piece of cardboard to lean on, pens and a huge wad of paper. Otherwise the set is quite hollow and there is a lot of legroom for each contestant, with all manner of wires trailing under the table. The conundrum buzzer was flush with the desktop and you just pressed it down about an inch to sound it (on the current set it is a raised round metal button which hardly moves when you press it).
Susie came in with Keith Barron, then Richard, joking about the fear of rollercoasters I had mentioned, then Carol, bantering with the audience, and finally everyone got in place and it was underway. Far from smoothly, though, as the very first round had to be scrapped after Carol gave Kevin a vowel for his last letter when he'd asked for a consonant (after LJSOIREM); luckily this didn't faze me and I got off to what would become my customary strong start, a relief after what had happened in my audition. After the game, it was time for a photoshoot on set with the hosts, DC-dwellers and the day's contestants, followed by dinner in the YTV canteen; in between I was congratulated by Lee, Marie and Martin the make-up artist. My dad and brother arrived for the evening recordings and were overjoyed to hear I'd won.
For the first defence of my 'crown' I was hitting peak form, with the uncertainty of the first game behind me, but with tiredness not yet setting in, and opponent Russell Hutton, a humorous product support engineer, didn't exactly help himself by starting off with three disallowed words in a row. This purple patch continued through my third game, and last of the day, against Megan Stone, a retired teacher. You should have heard the gasp from the audience when I declared six to Megan's seven in round four (the first time I had lost a round); it was lost when they did a retake of that round at the end. Despite this setback I secured another good victory, maintaining my run of centuries with a fast conundrum. I seemed to have made an impression very quickly, not least with Susie, who had mock-begged me not to offer any more strange words after my first game.
After being advised by Lee to get a good night's sleep before the potentially long day ahead and making a quick visit to the (free) YTV bar, it was home for the night. Fortunately it was not too early a start the next day, and armed with a fresh supply of strips of paper, my dad and I arrived in good time.
I had seen countless very good contestants on TV make blistering starts, only to go off the boil and end up scraping victories against inferior opponents with 70-odd points when they had been racking up 120-odd to begin with; and so I was determined to maintain something like the standard I had played at on the first day. In the green room before recording began, my first opponent of the day, Leo, told a story of how in one of his audition rounds he was all set to declare five but saw a nine as Marie was going round the table, asking people how many they'd got, and that if she'd gone round the other way, asking him first, it could have meant his not getting on the show - that's how close it can be.
It was a funny game, with Leo seeing CLAIM but not EXCLAIM, then LOUNGED coming up as the first seven letters of a selection, then my using complicated methods to solve two numbers games and totally messing up the other when there were easy ways available; not to mention the antics of DC-debutante Ingrid Tarrant, saying words out loud during the clock sequence and speaking into the wrong camera for her piece into the break. Somewhere in all that, I recorded my first nine-letter word and highest score so far. There was no time to reflect, though, as a quick shirt-change later I was facing Tim Cape. He was a real character, a witty and urbane Londoner who had once been a restaurateur and organized a Latin-American fiesta in Battersea Park. He had seemed, in his own words, a bit daunted ever since I had told him my first day's scores in the green room, which was a shame, because some of the spark seemed to have gone for me and it could have been a close game had Tim not started so poorly. I duly recorded my lowest score to date, and was pretty annoyed at my continuing fallibility on the numbers. Though they're not exactly my strength, I'm not usually as bad as that playing at home, but unlike the letters games they seemed somehow a lot harder in the studio.
Opponent number six was Jill Leatherbarrow, a very nice lady and a former lexicographer too, which could have been to her advantage, but sadly for her she failed to score for the entire second 'half', just as she seemed to be recovering from a bad start. With the game effectively won I made some more bad errors and should really have ended up with a lot more than 111 points. I played a more solid game next time out, and needed to, as June Mitchell, a probation officer, gave me a real scare before I achieved my seventh victory, She did not allow me to build up a big lead, keeping me within striking range, and after declaring a magnificent four in round nine (where my mind just went totally blank), I was feeling the pressure. For the first time I had to face the dreaded prospect of a crucial conundrum. As the third 'half' got underway my nerves were jangling as I desperately searched for something to get me out of danger. I was very lucky that MOHAIR came up to save me - it had featured in one of the games the previous day when I had been in the audience, and I'm certain that if June had been there, she would have seen that word. All credit should go to June; I think it was more her skill than my lack of it that took the game right down to the wire.
After the tension and uncertainty of my game against June, added to the pressure built up throughout the day, I just cut loose in my final game against former merchant seaman Carl McDermott. Long words, including two nines, just kept jumping out at me early on, but as the score mounted and the excitement in the studio tangibly grew, the pressure started to exert itself again. During the second would-be advert break a feverish Richard was gabbling loudly via his earpiece to the production crew in the gallery overhead, "What's that you say Damian? Three records? Yes... highest score, most centuries... what's the other one?" I defy anyone to stay cool in such circumstances, and after an unprecedented third nine had put me on 122 points with three rounds to go, I started to flake out good and proper.
Imagine the situation; I was already very annoyed with myself for having thrown away two great chances to beat Chris Wills' record of 129 against Leo and Jill; then, finally, at the end of a long, draining day, in what seemed to be my last shot at that seemingly unbeatable target (I doubted I would be able to beat it in the finals), I had worked hard to put myself in a position where I needed just eight points from the last three rounds to clinch the record. Eight measly points...
So on the last letters game, I ask for a sixth consonant when I mean to say vowel, an awful selection ensues, no-one can get any more than six. No matter, just tap in an easy numbers game and you're there. Cecil throws up a horrendously difficult target, but still, Carl draws a blank, so anything at all within ten will get me the record. Surely it's all over as I declare a number two away... and then I get it wrong... what was going through my mind at this stage was pretty unprintable. Richard, revelling in the anticipation, stokes up the pressure by reminding us all of the record going into the conundrum, and (I know it's a cliché but...) the two seconds before I pressed the buzzer seemed an eternity.
After the game I was in a bit of a daze, surrounded by old ladies wanting autographs, being congratulated by everyone... in the bar, Leo and Tim jokingly said they felt like beating me up - they, as well as the others, had really entered into the spirit of the game, staying right to the end after their early defeats, and I could not have wished for a nicer group of people to spend the day with. Ingrid Tarrant practically insisted on having a photo done with me, and Damian told me right then and there that I'd be in the next Championship of Champions, no matter what happened from now on. All this adulation was hard to take in for a shy, introverted person like me who hates performing in public and likes to keep a low profile.
When it was all over and I had got my goody bags (Richard had even thrown in the scoresheet he filled in for the match against Carl, as well as my typed contestant introduction), we made our way back home in the car in the rain. To have to come back down to earth and go to college and then to my part-time job the very next day was just about the most depressing experience I have ever had. When you are at YTV you are effectively cocooned from the real world and all its troubles; you are pampered and treated like a star; you are looked after so well, you have everything done for you and hardly have to lift a finger; even your clothing is chosen and prepared for you so you don't have to make a single decision for yourself. To have to readjust to normality overnight is pretty tough.
I hadn't told my friends, or anyone else, about where I was going (mainly to avoid the extra pressure on me that would be caused by people's expectancy), but as the shows were going out the week after, I couldn't hide for long. It took me a while to get used to people coming up to me at college; I grew tired of the continual need to explain the basics of the programme to people who had never watched it before (no, you can't just choose nine consonants if you're winning...), and it got to the stage where I could have screamed the next time someone asked me a) What's Richard / Carol really like? b) Why didn't you go on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? or c) What do you get if you win? (this last one invariably followed by something like "You what? A set of ***** dictionaries? What kind of a prize is that?")
I was repeatedly amazed by some of the people who turned out to be Countdown fans - you'd never believe the following the programme has, amongst the most unlikely people. I was spotted when on holiday in Wales, I got two letters from complete strangers who lived in totally different parts of the country to me, the Calendar regional news programme wanted to record an interview, the local paper wanted a picture... meanwhile, videos of my games were dispatched to my relatives in France (I didn't envy their task in trying to decipher just what the hell Richard is going on about half the time). All in all it had a big effect on my life; that said, I didn't have many complete strangers recognize me in the street, perhaps one or two a week at most. I certainly wasn't "mobbed in the supermarket" as Richard later suggested.
Anyway, it was all coming thick and fast for me, since the finals of my series were to be recorded just a fortnight after my octochamp run was broadcast, on 11-12 November (to be followed by the C of C on 17-19), and though everyone, right down to the audience co-ordinator at YTV (whom I phoned to arrange tickets), was confidently predicting I would have an easy ride to the championship, I knew it would be anything but. A certain web-page author awaited in the quarter-finals.